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2017-’18 Minnesota Golden Gophers Season Preview

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BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Minnesota Golden Gophers and what fans should expect from the program heading into the 2017-’18 season.

NCAA Football: Middle Tennessee at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017-’18 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview' series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2017-’18 season with analysis on each program's previous season, offseason departures, new additions, strengths, weakness, top player, and top storylines. Each post will also include predictions on each team's starting lineup, season performance and commentary from a local "insider" who covers said team.

***

Life comes at you fast.

It’s a phrase that we often hear, but probably don’t give much thought. While we all know that the only constant in life is change, we can sometimes forget how quickly change occurs. Things seem as if they should move on a smooth and consistent path, but we all know that’s not what usually happens. It’s a seemingly random mix of success and failure that may or may not have a positive or negative trend.

Of course, college basketball is no exception to this rule. In fact, it might be the perfect example of how quickly things can change. The sport is ruled by players who spend a singular season with a program. Coaches with million dollar salaries and millions of fans hinge on the decisions of teenagers and health of college students. It’s a world where expectations are high and few are willing to forgive.

And this brings us to Minnesota.

Let me be the first to admit, I did not have high hopes for the Golden Gophers before last season. I began last year’s preview with the following:

“Hot seat.

. . .

Since arriving in Minneapolis in 2013, Richard Pitino has watched Minnesota go from an NCAA Tournament team to a unit that struggled to stay competitive in the Big Ten. There have been blowout losses, crippling upsets, and frustrating roster attrition. Outside of a handful of games, it’s hard to find much that has went right for the Gophers during Pitino’s tenure.

. . .

As Minnesota prepares to enter this season, Pitino is squarely on the hot seat. Even if Minnesota has been unlucky over the last few seasons, this must be the year. Minnesota has posted just a 51-51 (.500) record under Pitino and has failed to make the NCAA Tournament. Add in that this is just his fourth year as a head coach (one year at FIU) and it’s easy to see why fans need to see something this year. He’s recruited well, but there needs to be some tangible progress for fans and administrators to believe things are headed in the right direction.”

My preview certainly contained some optimism (I did point to Reggie Lynch, Nate Mason, and Jordan Murphy as potential star players), but it was largely a negative evaluation of the Gophers and the future of Richard Pitino’s program. I ended my preview by picking Minnesota to finish 12th in the league and anticipating that Pitino would be looking for a new job. I figured success was possible, but not likely.

Well, life comes at you fast.

Just 12 months later, Minnesota will enter this season ranked in the top 25 and coming off the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2013. The Gophers ended up winning 24 games last season, including 11 in conference play and nine of 10 games in late February and early March. Late season losses to Wisconsin, Michigan, and Middle Tennessee State certainly stung, but it was still a successful season for the program.

Perhaps no Big Ten program saw more improvement during last season than Pitino’s Gophers. Not only did the team win 16 more games than it had a year earlier, but it also improved from 192nd on KenPom to 37th. In just one offseason, Minnesota went from one of the worst teams in the Power Five to one of its best. And that was despite having a roster that was only 300th in KenPom’s experience rating. An impressive achievement for any coach.

And now, Minnesota will return virtually all of last year’s team and hope to take the next step. The excitement for the Gophers is palpable, but the question is whether the team can actually reach teh elite levels of college basketball.

Let’s take a look at whether Minnesota can do just that.

BTPowerhouse Season Preview Podcast

Along with reading BTPowerhouse's season preview post for the Minnesota Golden Gophers, make sure to check out the site's podcast preview of the Gophers, featuring BTPowerhouse Manager Thomas Beindit and UStreet of the Daily Gopher breaking down Minnesota’s roster, incoming recruits, schedule, and season outlook.

1. 2016-’17 Season Performance

  • Record: 24-10 (11-7)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #37
  • RPI Rating: #20
  • Postseason Appearance: NCAA Tournament (R64)

There’s little debating that Minnesota was a flawed team last season. The Gophers had mixed results against the league’s best competition and had a defense overly reliant on Reggie Lynch. Simply put, there’s a reason why Minnesota lost to a 12 seed in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

However, Minnesota was a good team, even if was flawed. That’s important to keep in mind because many have lost focus on what the program achieved last season after a frustrating loss in the NCAA Tournament.

Let’s start with the basics. Minnesota won 24 games and made the NCAA Tournament last season. The Gophers beat four top 100 KenPom teams in non-conference play and recorded wins over Maryland, Michigan, Northwestern, and Purdue during regular season play. That’s even more impressive considering that the wins against Maryland, Northwestern, and Purdue all came on the road.

Along with those achievements, Minnesota beat Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament and beat postseason teams in Illinois and Iowa. The Gophers rarely blew out teams, but it still built an impressive resume. Notably, Minnesota only lost to two teams (Ohio State and Penn State) who finished outside KenPom’s top 50 last season. The Gophers also beat both of those teams at other points in the season as well.

The general profile of last year’s Minnesota team was of a unit that improved substantially, but was still stuck between good and great. While Minnesota probably played above its head at times and blew some games it should have won, it was still an exciting and fruitful season for a program trending in the right direction.

Individual statistical leaders were Reggie Lynch, Nate Mason, and Jordan Murphy. Lynch led the team in blocks. Mason led the team in minutes, points, assists, steals, usage, and total win shares. Murphy led the team in rebounds.

2. Offseason Exits

As mentioned, Minnesota was one of the nation’s most improved teams last season. The Gophers transitioned from a Big Ten bottom dweller into a unit that won 11 league games, including five on the road. Not everything went perfect, but Minnesota was a quality unit that made the NCAA Tournament as a five seed.

But what was particularly impressive about that run for the Gophers was that the team did it with an incredibly young roster. Minnesota ranked 300th in KenPom’s experience rating and had three underclassmen in the starting lineup. The vast majority of teams with youth similar to that missed the postseason altogether.

The good news, however, is that while that youth might have been frustrating for fans then, it should mean big things for this season. That’s because it means the Gophers will return the vast majority of last season’s production and virtually ever major contributor. In fact, Minnesota will only lose three players from last season’s team and one is a walk-on and the other only saw action in 15 games.

The three players who will be departing are Akeem Springs, Ahmad Gilbert, and Darin Haugh. However, considering that Gilbert and Haugh combined to play 83 minutes last season, the only real departure is Springs. That’s pretty significantly considering that last year’s roster made the NCAA Tournament.

During last season, Springs averaged 24.0 minutes, 9.5 points, and 3.0 rebounds per game. As a graduate transfer, he offered experience to a roster that desperately needed it. While on the court, he hit 38.3 percent of his looks from long range and posted a 104.8 offensive rating. Springs ate up 24.3 percent of the team’s shots while on the floor during Big Ten play, which ranked among the top 25 players in the league.

There’s little debating that Springs will be a measurable loss for the Gophers this season. He played 55.2 percent of the team’s overall minutes and more than 60 percent of the minutes in league play. More importantly, Springs led the roster in three-pointers last season. That’s important because the Gophers were 200th nationally in team three-point percentage. Minnesota lacked long range shooters and Springs was one.

Evaluating Springs’ departure takes context and nuance. Springs wasn’t a star player and didn’t earn any All-Big Ten honors last season. In fact, he probably wasn’t even all that close to All-Big Ten. However, he was a senior who played efficiently and hit big shots when asked. Championship teams need players like that. Good, quality role players that can elevate the roster. Minnesota can, undoubtedly, win without Springs, but this isn’t a departure that should be overlooked.

3. New Additions

This season, the Golden Gophers will be adding two new recruits and one transfer. The recruits are Jamir Harris and Isaiah Washington. Washington is a four-star prospect and Harris is a three-star, according to 247Sports. Washington is listed as a point guard and Harris is listed as a combo guard. The lone transfer is Matz Stockman, who joins the program after playing three seasons with Louisville.

Although this is a small incoming group, they still bring their fair share of hype. Minnesota’s two-man class isn’t a function of the program struggling on the recruiting trail, but rather, a function of Minnesota’s substantial returning talent and depth. When virtually the entire lineup returns and much of the team’s depth, it’s hard to add too many newcomers.

Washington is the highest rated of the two and is a major, major prospect. He was rated 61st nationally by 247Sports and received attention from a fair share of national powers. For perspective, Washington is the program’s second highest rated traditional recruit (Amir Coffey was top 50 nationally) since Minnesota’s heralded 2009 class. The Gophers have been far from perfect during that period, but it’s still meaningful.

Two of the biggest things that Washington does well is take care of the ball and get to the hoop. There will be questions about whether he can get to the hoop consistently at the next level, but there’s no doubt he did it at the high school level. The hope will be that he can be a reliable depth option at the point and develop his other skills over the coming season and beyond.

Harris will arrive on campus as a three-star prospect and the No. 15 combo guard in the class. He’s widely regarded as a quality shooter, but still has some room to grow both in his game and physically. Minnesota will hope he can provide a boost off the bench this season. The good news is that with reliable options like Coffey in front of him, there won’t be much pressure for him to play early.

The final addition is Stockman, who will arrive as a transfer from Louisville. However, due to NCAA rules, he will sit out the upcoming season. He will be eligible starting in the 2018-’19 season, but is expected to offer quality frontcourt depth for the Gophers.

While Minnesota’s set of newcomers isn’t large, it’s a talented group that should be able to help out this season. If the new recruits can hit the ground running, Minnesota should be in great shape.

4. Points of Optimism

There’s a lot to like about this year’s Minnesota team, but nothing looms larger than the team’s returning depth and experience. The Gophers were a good team last season and bring back just about every major contributor. It doesn’t exactly take an expert to conclude that returning players from a good team generally means good things. If the ingredients worked the first time, it seems likely that it would work again.

And there’s little debating that the Gophers return a great share of last year’s 24 win team. In fact, the team returns four starters and five of its top six players in minutes from last season. Thanks to all of those returning pieces, Minnesota figures to be one of the nation’s most experienced teams. The Gophers will likely start four or five upperclassmen this season, led by two seniors.

That experience should give Minnesota a great baseline for the upcoming season. The Gophers should have consistency and known commodities in the lineup. The team should no longer have as many extreme ups and downs as it has seen in recent years. That’s good news for a program that is looking to take the next step. Consistency is huge if a team wants to be in the Big Ten title race and Minnesota should have that.

Minnesota’s experience also comes all over the court. Nate Mason was an All-Big Ten player in the backcourt last season, Reggie Lynch was the league’s best shot blocker, and Amir Coffey was one of the Big Ten’s best wings. Few teams have a potential top-tier player at every position group. The Gophers will this season and that means the team could very well in be in contention at the highest level this season.

Perhaps the biggest wild card of that equation will be Coffey. Not because he’s a question mark, but because his potential is almost unlimited. While Coffey showed some nice things as a freshman, there’s far more meat left on the bone with his game.

If Coffey continues to develop, he could legitimately be in the Big Ten Player of the Year race. That might sound hyperbolic, but he has that kind of ceiling. Though Coffey will, admittedly, likely settle in somewhere below that level, his potential should get fans excited about this season.

Finally, even though Minnesota will rely on returners, the new additions and progress of returning underclassmen could spell big things for the Gophers. To start, both Washington and Harris are good enough to see minutes early. The two could really help Minnesota’s depth. And, as mentioned with Coffey, if some of the younger players can take steps forward, Minnesota could really become a dangerous unit.

5. Points of Concern

Maybe this sounds like a direct contradiction of the information above, but Minnesota’s biggest limitation could also be its biggest strength. While the Gophers return a substantial number of contributors from last season, that also means the ceiling could be much lower for this team than many others. After all, if a team is working with the same pieces as before, how much better can it get?

To put this into perspective, let’s just take a look at some of Minnesota’s biggest returning players. Lynch and Mason were both upperclassmen last season, McBrayer was an experienced player that fought for time with Springs (now departed), and many of the team’s backup frontcourt options like Bakary Konate were underwhelming. More simply put, most of these players have either already hit their potential, or have little room left for improvement.

One major exception, of course, is Coffey. His potential is sky high, but it’s also important to remember that it’s still potential. While many expect Coffey to take substantial steps forward this season, it’s not unreasonable to think that he only improves moderately. Additionally, even if Washington and Harris have some high hopes as recruits, those two are likely going to be playing off the bench. As such, their impact will be limited.

The reason this “low ceiling” is important to note is because Minnesota had a mixed performance last season. The Gophers were a good team, maybe even really good at times. However, Minnesota was never a nationally elite team. There’s a reason the team finished 37th on KenPom and lost key games against Wisconsin, Michigan, and Middle Tennessee State to end the season. If Minnesota wants to reach its goals this season, it’s going to need more than modest improvement from that resume, which could make so many returners a bit of a concern.

Another area that looks like a concern will be Minnesota’s underwhelming shooting. The Gophers finished 200th nationally in three-point percentage and 253rd in two-point percentage. No Minnesota player finished in the top 15 in the league in effective field goal percentage or true shooting percentage either. And considering that Springs was one of the team’s best shooters, Minnesota needs to take a step forward here.

One other spot that will remain a concern is Lynch’s foul issues. While Lynch is one of the nation’s best defenders, he had foul trouble far too often. In fact, while Minnesota finished with the 22nd best defense, per KenPom, Minnesota wasn’t nearly as dominant when Lynch was on the bench. Lynch will always have some degree of foul trouble due to his aggressive style of play, but this is an important area of potential improvement for the Gophers.

6. Top Player

Heading into last season, there were some major questions about who would be Minnesota’s best player. Here’s what I wrote in this section last fall:

“[T]he emergence of Jordan Murphy during the second half of last season can’t be overstated. He started the year as a middling recruit, but ended the season as arguably Minnesota’s most consistent producer and one of the Big Ten’s best freshmen. How much he can improve from that level remains a major question, but he figures to be the chief contender for Minnesota’s best player this year.

Along with Murphy, there are a few other players that should play into this conversation. The biggest figure to be Amir Coffey, Reggie Lynch, and Nate Mason. While Mason is the only one who has seen time in a Minnesota uniform, all three have the talent and skillsets to be productive this year. In particular, if Lynch can bring his numbers from Illinois State to Minneapolis, he could end up being one of the Big Ten’s best players this season.”

The statements above may seem shocking considering how last season went, but you have to remember, Minnesota was coming off an 8-23 season and didn’t even have a player make the All-Big Ten honorable mention team. Murphy earned All-Big Ten Freshman Team honors, but nobody else earned any league awards. Even if some players had shown signs, anointing anyone as the team’s best player was a questionable gesture.

However, that was then and this is now. And now, Minnesota has plenty of quality options.

Leading the group into this season will be Mason. While I have mixed feelings about whether he deserved All-Big Ten first team honors, he was named among the group last season. Mason figures to be among that same discussion this season as well. Even if he only improves a tad, Mason will be one of the league’s better players.

On top of Mason, Minnesota also returns three other award winners last season. Lynch was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Murphy earned All-Big Ten third team honors, and Coffey was on the All-Big Ten freshman team. It’s not crazy to think all four of these players could end up among the Big Ten’s best 25 by season’s end. That means the competition for Minnesota’s top spot will be a fierce one this season.

One wildcard to watch in this regard will be freshman Washington. He is expected to play off the bench this season, but could make some noise if he hits the ground running. His recruiting rankings indicate that he has a bright future ahead, so the question will be how long it takes for him to get things going.

All told, this should be an exciting battle to watch this season. Mason will be the frontrunner, but there are more than a few players on Minnesota’s roster capable of passing him.

7. 2017-’18 Schedule Breakdown

  • 11/2 - Concordia-St. Paul (Exhibition)
  • 11/20 - USC Upstate
  • 11/13 - at Providence
  • 11/15 - Niagara
  • 11/19 - Western Carolina
  • 11/21 - Alabama A&M
  • 11/24 - vs Massachusetts (New York City, NY)
  • 11/25 - vs Alabama (New York City, NY)
  • 11/29 - Miami (FL)
  • 12/3 - Rutgers
  • 12/5 - at Nebraska
  • 12/9 - at Arkansas
  • 12/11 - Drake University
  • 12/21 - Oral Roberts
  • 12/23 - Florida Atlantic
  • 12/30 - Harvard
  • 1/3 - Illinois
  • 1/6 - Indiana
  • 1/10 - at Northwestern
  • 1/13 - Purdue
  • 1/15 - at Penn State
  • 1/18 - at Maryland
  • 1/20 - Ohio State
  • 1/23 - Northwestern
  • 1/30 - at Iowa
  • 2/3 - at Michigan
  • 2/6 - Nebraska
  • 2/9 - at Indiana
  • 2/13 - Michigan State
  • 2/19 - at Wisconsin
  • 2/21 - Iowa
  • 2/25 - at Purdue

During last season, I routinely remarked on how Minnesota built its resume and impressive RPI rating off some creative scheduling. The Gophers did an outstanding job of scheduling teams that were good enough to boost its RPI profile, but not actually good enough to pose a real threat. For instance, games against St. John’s and UT Arlington come to mind. While both were solid teams, Minnesota still entered both games with great odds to win. More simply put, this was RPI manipulation at its finest.

But with a change in circumstances, RPI manipulation is no longer necessary. Minnesota had a good 2016-’17 season and Pitino is off the hot seat. The Gophers can now focus on building a legitimate resume and preparing itself for a run at the Big Ten title and a great seed in March. And the team’s upcoming schedule reflects those circumstances.

To start, the bottom of the schedule truly is the bottom. Minnesota has seven upcoming “buy” opponents that were outside the top 200 on KenPom last season. And some of these teams were absolutely terrible last season, including Alabama A&M, who finished dead last on KenPom. Last year had teams like Louisiana Lafayette, Southern Illinois, and UT Arlington. The only teams that fit in this category this season are Massachusetts and Harvard.

However, while giving up the quality at the bottom of the schedule, Minnesota is looking at four legitimate non-conference games, including three away from home. To begin, Providence, Miami (FL), and Arkansas made last year’s NCAA Tournament. Minnesota will play Providence and Arkansas on the road. And even though Alabama didn’t make the Big Dance, Bama projects as a top 25 team. A win over any of those four will be a significant resume boost.

The tricky part, of course, with transitioning from a schedule designed solely to manipulate the RPI and one filled with a mix of top tier and bottom tier opponents is that it’s high risk for high reward. While it’s unlikely Minnesota will lose all of its key non-conference matchups, it’s far from impossible. And that could put the Gophers in a precarious situation entering Big Ten play.

Realistically, Minnesota will likely win two to four of its challenging non-conference games and enter Big Ten play with some momentum. As long as the Gophers can avoid being upset by one of its bottom feeder opponents, the team’s RPI situation should be just fine.

In league play, Minnesota looks poised to hit the ground running.

Not only did Minnesota’s first four Big Ten opponents fail to make last year’s NCAA Tournament, but the team has just one road game against a team did that did last season through its first seven conference games. More simply put, Minnesota has a great shot at jumping out to a 6-1 start in Big Ten play. And considering that Minnesota has five more home games after that, this is a pretty favorable slate.

However, even if Minnesota appears to be in good position to have a winning Big Ten record, the key portion of the schedule will be in late January through late February. Just look at this slate:

  • 1/30 - at Iowa
  • 2/3 - at Michigan
  • 2/6 - Nebraska
  • 2/9 - at Indiana
  • 2/13 - Michigan State
  • 2/19 - at Wisconsin
  • 2/21 - Iowa
  • 2/25 - at Purdue

Regardless of your opinion on Minnesota, that’s an absolutely brutal stretch. Not only does Minnesota get five road games in eight games, but all five are against teams that made last year’s postseason. And when you consider that two of the home games are against a loaded MSU and an Iowa team that should be much improved, even going 4-4 in that stretch will be quite difficult.

However, if Minnesota can find a way to make it through that stretch without taking too much damage, the team should be in great position for the Big Ten Tournament and Selection Sunday. With double players against Indiana, Iowa, and Nebraska, this schedule is relatively manageable. The key will be taking care of the manageable road games. Road trips to Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, Northwestern, and Penn State all look winnable. If Minnesota can win most of those games, things look pretty good.

This year’s schedule may look significantly more difficult, on paper, than last season, but with an experienced group returning, Minnesota has more than enough firepower to get things done. It’s not hard to see a path to 10 non-conference wins and a winning record in Big Ten play.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Nate Mason (Sr.) - 95%
  • SG: Dupree McBrayer (Jr) - 80%
  • SF: Amir Coffey (So.) - 95%
  • PF: Jordan Murphy (Jr.) - 95%
  • C: Reggie Lynch (Rs. Sr.) - 95%

(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)

Perhaps no Big Ten team has a more predictable lineup than Minnesota does this season. With four starters returning and another that started 21 games last season, filling out the lineup is pretty easy. This is an experienced group that will be looking to build off last season.

In the backcourt, expect things to start off with Nate Mason. After a stellar 2016-’17, he returns for his senior season looking to put the final touches on a great career in Minneapolis. Mason earned All-Big Ten first team honors last season and averaged 15.2 points, 5.0 assists, and 3.6 rebounds per game. If he can improve his efficiency, he figures to be one of the best players in the league.

Alongside Mason in the backcourt, Dupree McBrayer returns after a solid sophomore season. While he had to fight for playing time with Akeem Springs, he ended up playing 68.1 percent of Minnesota’s overall minutes and was one of the team’s better outside shooters. In fact, his 41.6 clip from three-point range was the most productive on the roster. McBrayer will now look to build on his outside shooting and ability to get to the free throw line.

The two players to watch with McBrayer on the wing will be the two incoming freshmen, Isaiah Washington and Jamir Harris. It’s unlikely either can earn a starting role over a proven player like McBrayer, but both are talented enough to earn minutes this season. Specifically, expect Washington to get significant bench minutes this season. Harris could be in line for a redshirt, depending on how well he progresses.

On the wing, Amir Coffey should lock down a spot as he looks to build on a brilliant freshman season. While Coffey may have been overlooked by many for Michigan State’s Miles Bridges, he was really productive last season. He was efficient inside, got to the line, and was good enough outside to keep defenses honest. If Coffey can add some weight and become a more consistent rebounder, the sky’s the limit.

Upfront, Minnesota will look to Jordan Murphy and Reggie Lynch to build off last year’s success. Both earned some form of All-Big Ten honors last season and rightfully so. Murphy remained one of the league’s most diverse players and a best on the boards and Lynch was the Big Ten’s best shot blocker. The big area for improvement lies with Lynch, who needs to get better at avoiding foul trouble. Either way, this looks like a great frontcourt.

The one question about the wing and frontcourt groups will be on the bench. Minnesota has bodies upfront with Gaston Diedhiou, Michael Hurt, and Bakary Konate, but none have been very productive so far. Moreover, even though Minnesota will be getting Davante Fitzgerald off a redshirt, it’s hard to know what to expect from the former transfer. While the Gophers don’t need all of these players to hit, the team does need one or two to provide quality backup minutes. This is especially true given Lynch’s foul issues. Fitzgerald projects as the most likely.

Overall, Minnesota projects to have one of the most proven lineups in this year’s Big Ten. The question will be how much this lineup can improve and what the bench provides. The good news is that, with so many league award winners returning, Minnesota figures to have the talent to contend at the top of the league.

9. Team Perspective From UStreet of The Daily Gopher

"Minnesota will start this year in much different fashion than last year. There are high expectations in Dinkytown and nationally. While the national hype is likely overblown relative to the actual talent, Minnesota has an outside shot to win the Big Ten and play late into the NCAA Tournament. The Gophers return four of their five starters led by preseason all Big Ten selections Nate Mason and Amir Coffey. Both of them will be players to watch night in and night out. Coffey has the most potential to play after college, and is an electrifying do everything player when at his peak. The newcomer to watch will be Isaiah Washington, who won New York's Mr. Basketball last year and has several hundred thousand followers on Instagram.

The big concern for Minnesota, and the factor that will likely prevent them from contending for a Big Ten championship will be the bench. Minnesota's depth took a massive hit in the off-season when Eric Curry injured his knee. Curry will miss the season, and it is an open question who will replace his production.

The Gophers have a favorable non-conference schedule and a difficult (but not impossible) conference schedule. Luckily for the Gophers, the most difficult stretch is at the end of the season, so they will have an opportunity to play their way into a high NCAA Tournament seed and a top 4 or better conference seed. My initial projection is that the Gophers finish fourth in the league with an NCAA seed between 4-6.”

10. Overall Season Outlook

It’s been quite some time since Minnesota entered a season with legitimate preseason expectations. Fans have largely been left to hope that the Gophers would “shock” experts and overachieve based on projections. This doesn’t exactly make for an enjoyable experience for the majority of fans.

However, this year is different. Minnesota enters the season as a top 25 team with major postseason hopes. The Gophers are not only expected to make the NCAA Tournament, but most think that the team will make the field with ease.

Even if you’re a skeptic of this year’s Gophers, that’s a huge step forward for a program that has one NCAA Tournament win since 1997. The team hasn’t been ranked in the preseason top 25 since 2010 and only saw its named in that poll twice since 1997. As such, this is unfamiliar ground for younger Gopher fans.

And that hype is warranted too. Minnesota returns four starters from a 24-win team, including Amir Coffey, Reggie Lynch, and Nate Mason. All three figure to be among the Big Ten’s best this season and Mason could make a run at Player of the Year. This group is talented, deep, and experienced and should be billed as such.

Nonetheless, there are concerns. For one thing, Lynch’s foul issues leave serious questions about the frontcourt and Minnesota needs to improve its perimeter shooting. Moreover, one has to wonder how much this team can improve from last season with much of the same roster.

The positives outweigh the concerns significantly for Minnesota entering the season, which should signal big things to come. Fans will be hoping that the Gophers can improve from really good to great and make a Big Ten title run.

Big Ten Prediction: 2nd Place